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Newcastle University

Purpose and expected benefits

Newcastle’s guiding principle is that effective leadership and management are essential to success and future growth. Therefore as well as recruiting a percentage of their new leaders externally they have established a strategy to implement robust succession processes, to ensure not just that the right leaders and managers are in place to take the institution forward but that a pool of talent is available to draw on. This has the added benefit of mitigating risk; when vacancies arise, there is talent available and prepared to operate at the highest levels.

The aims are to anticipate forthcoming known and unexpected vacancies, and to plan and work proactively to fill them with internal talent; to identify and develop individuals who are able to fill these vacancies and perform at the highest levels; to provide professional development activity that has been designed to meet business needs, but also allow tailored development for individuals in their own particular circumstances and roles.

What does it look like? Size and scope

The key characteristics of the strategy are:

  • It is supported from the top;
  • It is supported by robust leadership development provision and support, both generic and tailored;
  • Although explicitly aimed at senior leaders and managers, it also reaches out to staff at all levels with leadership potential.

The process is driven by the university’s Leadership Succession Strategy Group, which is chaired by the vice-chancellor and includes three pro-vice-chancellors, the registrar, the HR director and the chair of the university's staff committee, together with the leadership and management development adviser. This group meets annually to review high-level vacancies that are likely to arise, and to plan for these and as far as possible for unexpected vacancies that might arise.  A pool of potential future senior leaders is identified as part of the group’s activity.

The strategy is then supported by comprehensive leadership and management development provision which is designed to align with and deliver business objectives, but also to enable the tailored development for individuals mentioned above.  As a result, training and development is not only mapped to organisational needs but to individual ones as well.

The leadership and management development provision is designed, developed and budgeted for in line with business objectives. Senior leaders are involved in its planning.

In one sense the process covers the whole university – all academic schools and services are included, and leadership and management development is available at all levels. The focus of the succession process, however, is specifically those at senior levels (formal leadership roles such as deans, heads of academic units or service units, directors of research institutes, pro-vice-chancellors etc) and those in key or business-critical roles with institution-wide impact. There is recognition, though, that managers at all levels contribute to the organisation’s success, and so the aim is that the strategy will benefit all leaders and managers from executive board members through to front-line supervisors.

Who should be involved? Roles, stakeholders and engagement

Newcastle's strategy is driven from the top by the Leadership Succession Strategy Group.

During the year the HR director consults with the VC, university PVCs, faculty PVCs and the university’s registrar to highlight and plan for expected and unexpected leadership vacancies. The HR director then meets with the leadership and management development adviser to plan and budget for development support.

The leadership and management development adviser also responds directly to ad hoc requests for support from heads of schools and directors of professional services, often after appraisal meetings.

Responsibility for implementing the strategy and supporting it is expected at all levels.

As well as the work and planning at top levels, unit managers are expected to engage proactively with all aspects of leadership succession planning and development. Because this principle is made explicit, it has the advantage not only of making the strategy, procedures and provision of development transparent to all, but in the long term of increasing the possibility of diversity at the top.

How does it work? Selection and assessment methods

Potential future senior leaders are identified as part of the Leadership Succession Strategy Group’s annual review.

Potential leadership and management talent also emerges at all levels of the organisation as part of normal management and planning processes, including PDRs. Talent is identified internally and developed through targeted and appropriate professional development activity, so as to build a pool of suitably skilled and experienced individuals who are able to fill vacancies when they arise. The development support ensures that these individuals are effective and productive at an early stage.

How does it work? Development methods

The university has comprehensive leadership development provision that explicitly supports the development of leadership and management talent in line with business needs and also allows individuals’ needs to be met in line with their own roles and responsibilities.

It is expected that all senior leaders and managers engage proactively with development opportunities.

For new leaders, specific provision includes a meeting with the leadership and management development adviser, a welcome event and local induction activity.

Beyond the induction period, there is a wide range of provision available:

  • External and internal development programmes;
  • Development tools;
  • Coaching;
  • A strategic leaders’ framework (pdf);
  • Suggestions for individual development activity;
  • Suggestions for reading.

The university provides leadership development centres specifically as part of its succession process to identify and develop leaders. Those identified through the succession processes normally attend the development centres, and aspiring leaders can also apply to attend independently of the process.

The organisational culture encourages, expects and supports its senior leaders and managers to be proactive about their continuing professional development, and to maintain it beyond their initial period as leaders.  This will lead to leaders, managers and ultimately others having clarity about their career directions.


The hope was that the leadership succession process would enable the university to move  from having a preponderance of reluctant leaders who had to be persuaded to take on academic leadership roles to a situation in which people actively apply for leadership roles, accept the leadership and management elements of their work, see it as something worth learning about and ask for help with it. The indications are that Newcastle is well on the way to achieving the goal. The university has won prizes for effective leadership development, and in addition:

  • Aiming to have at least one credible internal candidate for each leadership position, Newcastle recently had five for one vacancy;
  • The employee opinion survey reveals that staff have real confidence in the way the university is led and feel increasingly positive about the way they are managed themselves. The survey is done every four years and results have improved each time;
  • From the nine development centres run over the last six years, six participants have been promoted to head of school roles, one to international director, three to directors of research centres, one to dean and four to deputy heads of school. Others are leading on key topics such as fees and the REF, and three have moved into more senior roles at other universities.